Barbie makes me hate myself
- Published: 13 February 2010
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Barbie has no flab, no cellulite, no wrinkles, no different-sized breasts, no body hair or anything that jiggles when she 'walks'. She may be only a doll, but she's having a powerful impact on Heather Denkmire.
Stemming from a gift to my daughter that my family worried might inspire some kind of explosive reaction on my part, I've had to think about Barbie a lot recently. Mostly I just had a lot of "Who the heck cares? Maybe she'll like it..." kinds of moments and thoughts when considering the gift. But when considering Barbie, here's what I now know: Barbie makes me feel bad about my body.
How can Barbie make me feel bad about myself? She's a doll. She's obviously just a toy. Her shape is barely human. Trouble is, I see her through my daughter's eyes. My daughter, still free of the burdens of poor body image, just sees dolls (not body shapes) and likes the faces with the biggest smiles.
Despite my daughter's beautiful innocence, I am painfully aware she is being exposed to an ideal we women aspire to despite our best intentions. We can all agree there is nothing squishy or flabby about a Barbie doll. She doesn't have cellulite, she has no body hair, and nothing wiggles or jiggles when she moves. There is no angle a camera must find to hide her sagging neck. She doesn't have one breast hanging a full inch lower than the other. She's delicate where she should be delicate and large enough where she's supposed to be.
This criticism of myself happens first. Then I get stuck seeing how frozen Barbie is in that ideal. She's trapped. Her feet are only positioned for spiked heels. Her legs have so much space between them it's almost impossible to consider her body modeled after the human form.
I see her and I feel imprisoned. I think of all the celebrities, all the models, all the porn performers, let alone all the more typical women who spend more time than I can imagine maintaining their appearances (I tend to the low-maintenance side of the spectrum where taking a shower that day is primping). If I spend as much time as I do feeling like shit about myself, then those women who rely on their looks for their livelihood likely have it even worse.
My self-perception isn't actually too bad in the right situation. The insecurities I describe here that verge on self-loathing because of the stupid Barbie ideal are typically fleeting. The feeling that I'm less than I should be is the exception, not the rule. But when it comes on, it comes on strong. It overpowers.
And here's where I come to creating my own definition of feminism.
When I realized what an impact the Barbie dolls my daughter was playing with had on me, I was ashamed. How could I see such obviously fake plastic toys and relate them in any way to myself?
When I value all kinds of beauty, how can I spend even a few minutes of my time thinking I should look more like Barbie? Logic obviously wasn't a part of this. I began thinking about how I might blog about the experience. Confessing that I saw this pile of Barbie dolls and suddenly felt fat and flabby—as if my ankles had expanded like something out of science fiction into the legs of an elephant—felt humiliating.
I thought of all my women friends who would say "I played with Barbies and it never had an impact." Or, "My daughter plays with Barbies and she loves it and it's creative and it doesn't bother me or her." Or, "Oh, my gosh, Heather, you're beautiful, how could you possibly compare yourself to a Barbie?" Or (and this was the loudest voice of all), "For god's sake, she's a toy. Why must you take everything so seriously?!?"
My evolving definition of feminism has honesty as a top priority. Voicing the insecurities I feel comparing myself to this stupid doll is a feminist action. Normally I am reasonably content with my body. I would even say that with some frequency, I'm a confident woman. It's humiliating to admit the impact the doll has on me. It reveals some pretty deep insecurities I'd rather pretend didn't exist.
Over the years I've read some great poetry and fiction praising women's bodies–real women's bodies. Skinny and plump, the whole spectrum. As a feminist I'm supposed to revere all of our shapes. As a feminist and mother, I'm supposed to love my stretch marks as badges of my motherhood (and, honestly, I do a lot of the time). As a feminist and a woman, I'm supposed to know that it's what's inside that makes me attractive not the texture of my thighs or the loosening of my skin.
Or, even better, it is precisely the texture of my thighs and the loosening of my skin that adds to my attractiveness. I am supposed to know and feel these things. In the right settings, happily, I do.
That comment about "taking things too seriously" is probably the most often used and most effective shut-the-fuck-up-bitch line there is out there. Women use it as much as men. At least that's true in my personal experience. I'll take the issue of shoes as an example of how pervasive the "you're taking things too seriously" theme is.
Today I wore a pair of shoes with high (for me) heels. They are by no means super-high heels.
Nothing spikey about them. I got them at Goodwill for probably less than $10 and I use them when I wear a skirt too long for flats or need to seem more professional than I typically appear. I was walking down a steep hill by my parents' church and felt a little wobbly even though they're not spiked heels. They aren't the kind of shoes I usually wear so I don't have a lot of practice feeling steady.
I've asked all my friends who are shoe obsessed (and more of my women friends are than are not, even among my crunchy granola friends) why why why do women love shoes so much? In that Sex and the City kind of lusting after shoes kind of way? I've even looked at nice shoes trying to access what I've honestly thought of as a missing female quality in myself.
Finally, one of my favorite online friends had an answer that made sense. Always the answer to "why do you lust after shoes?" is "because they're shooooz!" or, "they are pretty," or, "I like looking nice," or, "I feel good when I look nice."
Well, my friend nailed it. Nice shoes, particularly heeled shoes, make our bums look "better." As I made my way down the steep hill I realized they also keep us less stable (we'll need help), and in an easier access position for sex. I suspect if I just Google these realizations I'll find studies that have examined these issues.
So, as much as my friends who love shoes say it's because they love them, I will argue that they love them because of how they feel more attractive. This feeling more attractive is a consideration of other people's opinions rather than our own internal self-concept.
So, yes, I am saying that being totally into shoes—even if it's not spiked heels you're lusting after—is an example of our oppression as women. It's the male domination in our society that teaches women to "love shoes."
Am I saying those women are bad for being into shoes? No. Am I saying they're just victims of a massive scam to keep women down? No, not really. I am saying, though, that when we make these choices we should do so with our eyes open. Informed consent, as it were. Face the facts and make the choices using all the information.
And now, here I am on the couch writing, weaving around a topic rather than distilling it into a concise point, and I look up and see a bunch of women dancing around in bikinis cheering on some basketball team. Jesus H. Christ. Can you imagine if it was a group of men dancing around in Speedos? No one wants to see that (save a small percentage of gay men, and an even smaller subset of unique women).
What's my point? What should I be saying instead of just writing as I think?
Barbie makes me feel inadequate and when I imagine sharing that in public, I feel ashamed. I feel even more bad things about myself (the shame) because I realize how absolutely fucking stupid it is to give that kind of power to a piece of plastic.
The trouble is, she's the perfect symbol of the pressures women face every day at every turn to present ourselves in the best possible light. That light so often glows with the heat of unattainable tits and ass and tiny waist, taut and firm flesh always ready for a mate.
And, yes, of course I don't believe those goals are reasonable or desirable. Admitting how deep these insecurities run, though, is a feminist act of honesty. Perhaps it's a step forward on the real path to accepting myself just as I am—something I thought I'd figured out how to do years and years ago.
I will tell you, though, when Maya said she wished she had her Only Hearts Club dolls instead of the Barbies to play with in the Barbie dream house I about passed out with delight. I've talked to her before about why I don't like Barbies (years ago, probably -- I haven't mentioned it any time in the recent past) and maybe that stuck with her.
She could be trying to please Mommy. I don't know, though. I get the sense that she really does value reality more than fantasy and that somehow on some level, she sees how Barbie is about as real as a unicorn sliding down a rainbow into a pool of glitter.
Heather Denkmire is a freelance writer living in Maine with her two young daughters. She blogs here.